Magazine article The Spectator

Vichy Business

Magazine article The Spectator

Vichy Business

Article excerpt

'FranFais, Frangaises - vous avez la memoire courte': Marshal Philippe Petain, radio broadcast to the French people.

ON 22 June, 1940, after the most shattering defeat in France's history, the venerable Marshal Petain was wheeled out to sign an armistice with the triumphant Germans. The 84-year-old marshal, who had personified the very spirit of France with his heroic defence of Verdun in 1916 (`ils ne passeront pas!'), had been called upon to save the Republic in its darkest hour. Under the humiliating terms of the armistice, Petain agreed to the occupation of three fifths of France by the Reich, and the creation of the puppet Vichy state to govern the rump, with himself as head of state.

The capitulation of the French army after just six weeks of fighting, and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, are well documented. What is less well known is the fact that the French actually outnumbered the Germans on the Western Front and even had more tanks (3,000) than the much-vaunted Panzers (2,400). The speed of the collapse surprised even the most optimistic German commanders, and is neatly epitomised by the story of the British officer trying vainly to organise some French stragglers into defending the Calais perimeter. One heavily armed poilu was found ensconced in a cellar, refusing (with irrefutable Gallic logic) to join the fight with the words `j'ai peur!'

Could these be the descendants of Napoleon's sturdy grognards who, heavily outnumbered at Austerlitz in 1805, had driven a combined Austrian and Russian army from the field? Fear of the invader and his seemingly invincible armies may have played a part in the abject surrender of 1940, but, after that, compromise and collaboration became the watchwords of the new regime. The Vichy government lasted for four years, from 1940 to 1944, and the memory of the whole sorry episode is riddled with ambivalence and is one that most Frenchmen prefer to forget. It is conveniently glossed over in French history books: a standard textbook for lycee students devotes just four pages to the Vichy regime, compared with 157 pages on the economic and cultural achievements of the immediate postwar period.

The egregious Pierre Laval, Petain's vice-premier, emerged as Vichy's strongman. His first act, in July 1940, was to persuade the French parliament to vote itself, and the Third Republic, out of existence; the vote was carried by 569 to 80. The official policy of collaboration was not imposed unilaterally by the Germans but was a French initiative. `In order to preserve the unity of France,' said Petain in an address in October 1940, `I today embark on the path of collaboration.' There were shrill newspaper attacks on the British, who were perversely accused of dragging France into a disastrous war. Laval even attempted to bring France back into the war on the Axis side, but Hitler had no interest in accepting France as an ally. He simply used the quasiindependent Vichy state as a means to collect the huge occupation indemnity levied by the armistice (400 million francs a day, or 60 per cent of the country's national income), and to drain France of raw materials and manpower for the German war effort.

How could the people of France, la grande nation, with its proud martial traditions, tolerate such humiliation? Pas de probleme - the policy of collaboration was not only vigorously pursued by Laval and his cronies, but also firmly endorsed by most Frenchmen. Zealous Vichy officials required no prompting from Berlin in dragging Jewish families from their homes to fill the trains that rolled eastwards towards the death camps; and it was French gendarmes, not the Gestapo, who herded doomed children on to the wagons. Over 76,000 French Jews were deported to Auschwitz; fewer than 2,500 survived. The bien pensants justified all this by explaining that the deportations, and the occupation of their country, were a national purgatory, a kind of punishment for the feebleness of prewar Popular Front governments, A purged and revitalised France would thus emerge, phoenixlike, from the ashes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.